Culture, Religion

Scribe school

Picture a room with a couple of soferim in it, writing Torah. A proto-sofer is practising letter samekh. The sound of a lecture on the weekly Torah portion floats in from down the hallway. Another proto-sofer takes a deep breath; she’s about to start writing her first mezuzah. Her teacher is there, keeping an eye on her as she turns months of hard study into a real scroll.
A rabbinical student drops in with a megillah; he can’t quite work out what he’s doing wrong, but someone with more experience can get him back on track. Bolstered with good advice, he goes on his way, passing on his way out another proto-soferet who is coming from her Talmud class. Letter samekh is set aside and the two pull out books and tackle halakha. Mezuzah girl, taking a lunch break, helps them out when they get stuck.
They leave – they have Bible class now – and another student arrives. She’s an expert on the Ancient Near East, a university professor and rabbi. She lives in the next state and studies on her own, and comes in every few weeks for an hour’s lesson, after which someone is bound to get her into a discussion about texts from antiquity, and everyone will get very excited. After she’s gone, work resumes, perhaps punctuated by occasional exchanges of advice or the sharing of a thought on the text. Someone will fetch some tea, someone will take a minute to look up a halakhic ruling. Letter by letter, their scrolls grow.
In the late afternoon, a round-eyed eleven-year-old comes in with her bat mitzvah teacher. They’re taking a break from a Torah reading lesson, and coming to see the Torah being written. A Torah scholar spends an hour working on her own calligraphy; she doesn’t want to be a sofer, but she likes practising here with the scribes. Her Seeing Eye dog sleeps under the table; she’s practically blind, but she finds calligraphy inspiring. Everyone else finds her inspiring.
Around suppertime, a sofer and a proto-sofer arrive from their day jobs. Over supper, they catch up, talk shop a bit, and then set to reviewing some of the basics. They’ll almost certainly end up chasing a tangent through the rabbinic literature. Someone will bring an academic perspective, someone will share a midrash; they may finish the evening discussing practical concerns, or philosophy, or awed speechless by some particularly astounding idea.
Sounds nice, doesn’t it? And the great thing is, it’s not just a pretty dream. It happened last week, and the week before, and the week before, and God willing it will happen next week and the week after and the week after. Baby scribes and proto-scribes and getting-better scribes, people sharing what they know and what they’ve learned, writing and studying and listening together, and all the while the Torah grows and grows. It’s very beautiful.
X-posted to Hatam Soferet.

17 thoughts on “Scribe school

  1. Chakira – only according to some. Those people, like yourself, are entitled to your view, as we are entitled to ours. We won’t sell scrolls to you because we respect your view that they are invalid; we expect, in return, respect for our view.

  2. This is an example of manufacturing a controversy. I do not mind if you write sifrei torah. But if every Halachic decisor since the Talmud says that they are passul, then you cannot expect respect for the position that they are kosher, given that both of these are formalistic legal terms. I do think it is undesirable that women are not able to create kosher sifrei torah as men can according to Halacha. I respect your desire to change this situation. This does not justify counterfactual statements on what the Halachic consensus has been until this point.

  3. AIUI, the only authors that would passel a Sefer would be non-Jews, idolaters, and heretics.
    Where did women come in this picture?

  4. chakira: Is there any objective, logical reason why a sefer torah made by a woman should not be considered kasher assuming that the issues of tzeniut and and taharah are taken into appropriate account?

  5. chakira writes:
    Yes, because the Talmud and all subsequent decisors of Halacha say so.
    You’re begging the question. Clearly there are some decisors of halacha who say otherwise. You happen to disagree with them and/or consider them illegitimate.

  6. No I am saying passul has a meaning and that while our interlocutor made an attempt to circumvent that in a creative article, it was not a particularly effective attempt. If BZ has Conservative or Reform teshuvot affirming a women’s ability to produce kosher sifrei torah, then I would certainly limit myself to saying that the Sefer is Passul according to Halachic Judaism. Which is really all that we are talking about anyway. I do not see any breaks in the consensus or possibilities of such breaks, in normative Halacha, since the consensus is an explicit Talmudic statement which is basically copied verbatim into the codes without an ounce of dissent.

  7. chakira writes:
    according to Halachic Judaism
    normative Halacha
    without an ounce of dissent.

    You’re still begging the question.

  8. No, you just dont understand the idea that NO ONE for thousands of years ever said or thought that women could write sifrei torah.

  9. Oy, gevalt, people. Chill.
    There’s a sugiya that says anyone not obligated in tefillin – women, slaves, children – is pasul to write sifrei Torah. Also people like heretics who just obviously shouldn’t be writing Torahs. No-one argues with that – well, one person sort of tries to justify minors, but he drops it. As Chakira says, no dissent, no arguing. Thousands of years. An unusually clear-cut decision, in fact.
    Then you get the twentieth century and the idea that women and men might function on terms of ritual equivalence. In particular, the idea that women can be obligated in tefillin and have the same consequences vis-a-vis tefillin-related obligation and capabilities as men.
    This is where Chakira’s Judaism diverges from the egalitarian-flavoured Judaism. At this point, he is at liberty to throw up his hands and say “Feh.” The rest of us remain on board. This is a consequence of having denominations. As far as I am concerned, this is fine.
    Assumptions based on ritual equivalence leads to women doing things like leading davening and blowing shofar for mixed groups. Also things that no-one ever said women could do, and also things that Chakira’s Judaism does not buy into. B’seder. It also leads to women doing things like writing sifrei Torah (without, note, need for specific responsa to that effect; it’s a logical conclusion of assumptions already in play).
    As Chakira himself notes, no one stream of Judaism has a monopoly on the word “kosher,” in the sense of “ritually fit.” It’s like certain politicians saying that opposing the war in Iraq is incompatible with American values. They’re entitled to think that, but they don’t have a monopoly on the concept of American values. Other people may think that opposing said war is perfectly compatible with American values.
    Chakira is entitled to lay claim to the terms “kosher” and “halakhic Judaism,” and so are the rest of us, should we wish. No-one is trying to make Chakira do anything he doesn’t want to do, and no-one is in fact doing anything substantially different from what they were doing before, sifrei Torah being merely a logical extension of existing assumptions into a functioning Jewish community.

  10. Jen, you’re obviously speaking from a non-Orthodox perspective. I think we need to hear from our friend Aviel Barclay for an Orthodox perspective on female soferut.

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